THE BLOG
01/15/2015 02:31 pm ET Updated Mar 17, 2015

How Spending the Night in a Homeless Shelter Made Me a Better Networker

Petar Chernaev via Getty Images

For as long as I can remember community service has been an integral part of my life. The simple act of giving back keeps me firmly grounded in reality and I attribute my unique ability to interact and adapt to a variety of situations and people to my experience as volunteer.

Last year I made a New Year's resolution to spend one evening a month doing the overnight shift in the men's homeless shelter in my neighborhood. It was an eye-opening experience from the start and one of the outcomes I didn't expect was that it helped make me a better communicator.

Here's how:

1. Typically when you meet someone one of the first things you ask them is what do they do for a living. In many instances, the shelter clients I meet are unemployed or seeking work so instead I focus on getting to know who they are not what they do. Now whenever I met new people in general I show a genuine interest in who they are not what they do.

2. It's forced me to be more creative with my conversation. Most typical small-talk is not relevant with this crowd. They haven't seen any new movies to recommend, nor are they going to suggest vacation spots to you. Even weather can be a touchy subject and who am I to complain about the heat or cold when the flip of a switch in my house will rectify an uncomfortable temperature. Last year during one overnight, I was told by several of the guys they didn't even know the Olympics was taking place. So instead, I turn inward and ask people about themselves -- where they are from originally, what's their favorite food as we sat having our communal dinner, did they play a sport as a kid.

3. If you want someone to open up, ""yes" or "no" questions are dead-ends. Ask questions that require people to respond and then ask follow up questions otherwise you might just get a nod or a grunt.

4. Become an active listener. Listen for cues to steer the conversation and keep it going.

5. Sadly in this day and age most of the time you or the person you are taking to is looking at some sort of electronic gadget. One of the nicest things I realized when speaking to the shelter clients is they would look you in the eye and give you their full attention. They're not paying Candy Crush or posting their status, they are giving you their undivided attention which is not something we are used to in this day and age.

6. In the shelter and many times in the real world, no one cares what your job title is. They are interested in how you actually spend your day. Your job is secondary, your life and how you spend it is more important.

I started volunteering at the shelter to help others. I didn't realize how much it would help me gain a better understanding of how to communicate with people overall.

When my year of volunteering was up, I learned so much about the clients I met and about myself that I signed up for another year. I'll keep you posted on my progress!

By Jenny Powers, Networking Expert and Founder of Running With Heels, New York's Invitation-Only Event Society for on the go, in the know women executives and entrepreneurs.